Ahead of Labour Day, Roberto Mendolia, head of the Aleba financial sector trade union, spoke with Delano about teleworking, the potential impact of the covid-19 crisis on jobs, and why he’s learning Luxembourgish. Library picture: Roberto Mendolia, seen in August 2019. Photo credit: Nader Ghavami
Financial institutions are closed on 1 May, Labour Day, but staff in this key industry may have covid-19 and telecommuting on their minds.
The finance and insurance sector employs around 10% of Luxembourg’s workforce and contributes roughly 20% to the economy. Since the virus lockdown began, the vast majority of them have been working from home.
Aleba (which in French stands for the Luxembourg Association of Bank and Insurance Employees) is the financial sector’s largest trade union. Earlier this week, Delano spoke with Roberto Mendolia, president of Aleba since June 2019 and the head of Clearstream International’s staff delegation.
Aleba has “close to 10,000 active members” and roughly 1,600 retired supporters, according to Mendolia. Aleba has signed collective bargaining agreements with 119 banks, 30 non-life insurance companies, 36 life insurers, Post Telecom and Six Payment Systems. It also represents staff at a handful of IT and professional service firms, he stated.
When the lockdown began, the CSSF, Luxembourg’s financial regulator recommended large scale telecommuting. Mendolia said Aleba’s “first concern was to ensure that everyone could work at home” under safe conditions. The union wanted to balance “business continuity of the companies” while “preserving the health and wellbeing” of staff. However, employers “couldn’t find 46,000 laptops” immediately and many employees ended up volunteering to use their personal computers, with VPN software and other company tools installed.
Mendolia praised his employer, Clearstream, for being prepared. The outfit has “very good IT infrastructure. Almost everybody already had a laptop. Around 95% are working at home in our company,” he said on 28 April. But many other firms had to play catch-up, which was stressful for their staffs.
Mendolia reckoned that remote working has been a boon to both bosses and workers. “Employers recorded their lowest sick leave [rates] ever. They are super happy about that.”
With the expectation that the financial sector workforce will start returning to the office, in stages, at the end this month (the CSSF is expected to issue an updated advisory around 11 May), tensions could mount again. Some staff are concerned about safety and would like to continue working at home for a longer period of time. “Employers on their side are concerned about the loss of social contact, which can have a bad influence on work, apparently, reading [their] statistics. I can understand. We will have to find solutions.”
Mendolia reported being super efficient at his home office and believes remote working should be emphasised even after covid-19 restrictions are eased. For that to happen, some technical questions need to get answered and one very big issue needs to be resolved.
On a technical level, the groundrules for home working should be clarified, he argued. For example, should employees be compensated for using their personal IT kit? If an employee slips and falls while telecommuting, does that count as a work accident?
But “the big challenge for the future” is enabling systematic telecommuting for cross-border workers. “I want to insist with the government that we have the maximum of measures to allow home working” for staff who live in neighbouring countries. Currently, remote working is only permitted for a maximum of 19 days each year in Germany, 24 days in Belgium and 29 days in France. Otherwise income tax and social security charges are due in the country of residence. (These rules were temporarily suspended during the covid-19 crisis.)
Mendolia called for those limits to be greatly increased. He stated:
“We need to ensure that surrounding governments start to be more pragmatic and stop thinking people are cheating” by telecommuting. Although he now lives in the grand duchy, “I commuted from Belgium [for many years] and remember being asked to prove you crossed the frontier every day. I did 300km roundtrip every day. It took 2 hours [each way]. Then to get chased by the tax office… and some people couldn’t prove it. That’s just ridiculous. We are not those who are cheating.”
“In a world that wants to be more green… this kind of attitude from some tax offices should be softened. The trust should go more [to] employees and employers in local countries who don’t want to cheat, they just want to work the best they can. Let’s avoid traffic jams, stress and pollution. Ideally, having 60 days of home working authorised would be optimum.”
At the same time, Mendolia has been worried about redundancies possibly spiking later this year. There is a chance of “an uncontrolled amount of dismissals” taking place, as companies reorganise following the deconfinement process and economic contraction. “I hope this won’t happen.” He has heard some “small companies” will dismiss a notable portion of their staff. He is less sure about large employers, “but we have to be prepared in any case.”
Mendolia told Delano that he “spends three hours a week with the legal department” learning the ins-and-outs of the labour code and other rules, which to his surprise is “super interesting”.
In addition, the trade union leader is learning Luxembourgish, “for the culture behind the language,” he said. “The law is written in French, which is good for me,” as a native Francophone. But to truly understand how laws came about, Mendolia posits, “you cannot do that without the culture.”